Do you want to know how to make an alcoholic feel like a normal, responsible drinker? You normalize his gluttonous behavior. This normalization is what separates alcoholism from other drug addictions. There is not a circumstance under which smoking meth or shooting up heroin looks normal in my world, but drinking robustly is often the norm among people who do not consider themselves alcoholics. And there is no situation that welcomes drinking to excess, even for the responsible, quite like the holidays. In fact, holidays make an active alcoholic feel normal. “I don’t have a drinking problem. Look around. I’m just like everyone else. Alcoholic? Not me.”
The void is a big deal. Filling the void left when the alcoholic quits drinking or the addict stops using is widely considered necessary in the recovery world if long-term sobriety is to be maintained. When drugs and alcohol go from a top priority to a missing chunk of an addict’s existence, something must fill that vacated time and space. Alcoholics who do not address the void are called, “dry drunks.” They might no longer drink, but their inability to find something positive to take the place of the booze leaves them spiritually and emotionally no better off than when they were active alcoholics.
I get it. The void is a real thing, and a force to be reckoned with.
But what if we are looking at it all wrong? What if the void is not the hole left behind when the alcohol is gone, but rather, the hole that was always there that alcohol filled with ease and comfort? What if rather than address the void in sobriety to prevent relapse, we address the void before we learn how good it feels to fill it with drink? What if the void is the cause of addiction, rather than its collateral damage?
A girl was locked in a room and held down on a bed while a boy fondled her breasts and greedily explored her body through a drunken haze at the encouragement of his intoxicated friend. A man with an impeccable reputation, a beautiful family and a mountain of credentials vehemently denies any involvement in such a dastardly assault in spite of his accuser’s 100% certainty that he’s the one.
Both are convincing and believable – the victim and the man she accuses. I don’t know what happened, and neither do you.
But I have a unique perspective. I have been through experiences similar enough to add a twist to the discussion. It’s a twist I have not heard explored on CNN or FOX News. It’s not hard for me to believe the violated, abused girl and the irreproachably qualified man are both telling the truth. Their truth, as they remember it. Their truth as their subconscious minds in survival mode (our subconscious is all about survival) have manipulated them to remember it.
I was very drunk one of the first times I had sex as a teenager, and so was the neighbor-girl who was alone in that bedroom with me. We had not been dating. We had never flirted or shown affection for one another. We got drunk and we kissed. We were clumsy and inexperienced, but nothing was stopping our hormones and curiosity. There was brief, bumbling, inept penetration followed by embarrassment, awkward silence and months of mutual avoidance. I didn’t force myself on her, but I was as ashamed of my sexual persistence as I was of my performance. I was eager, and she was willing. We were both very, very drunk.
Saturday night I made a mistake. I got far too close to the edge of an alcoholic relapse. I have only my pride and ego to blame. And now as I write in the quiet hours between midnight and the break of Sunday, I am willing to trade sleep for the chance to record my brush with drinking disaster so I will never forget how close I came.
Heinrich is a dear friend to my wife, Sheri, and me. He lost his wife to suicide several years ago when she lost her long battle with mental illness. Heinrich is a loving father to two beautiful children in the same age range as our kids. Our families attend the same church, and we get together for dinner with Heinrich’s family and some other friends a few times a year.
Despite the tragedy Heinrich and his kids have endured, they are as strong and stoic as his German name suggests. Still, Sheri and I can’t help but feel sadness for all three of them. We love them, and we would do anything we could to help them have a joyful life. We have asked Heinrich many times if we can help with the kids or in any other way. He is strong. He is a very good father. He rarely takes us up on the offer. It is important to us to try to help, selfishly, so we can feel like we are doing our part.
So when Heinrich invited us to an authentic German Oktoberfest at an authentic German restaurant to celebrate his birthday, we accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. An authentic German Oktoberfest is probably the last place a sober alcoholic whose drink of choice was strong, flavorful beer in large quantities – like me – should ever be.
I didn’t think I’d ever drink alcohol again. I couldn’t be sure, but my resolve was strong. Just when I was feeling confident about my sobriety, a day like this happened.
As I awoke from my very brief slumber alone on my neighbors’ front porch swing, the party raged on in the house behind me. What happened? Did I pass out? Only minutes earlier I was engaged in conversation with the smokers in attendance who were indulging their habit outside. I was indulging my habit, too. I was probably five or six beers into the evening when I ventured outside to join their conversation. Sometime while trading stories and laughing effortlessly as drinkers do while drinking, I passed out mid-conversation. It seemed the long work week and soothing motion of the swing combined with the alcohol to lull me to sleep. Now awake, I slithered back across the street to my house and joined my family who had left the party and gone to bed in the previous couple of hours.
I was not drunk. I was not slurring my words and I had not said anything rude or insulting. I had not gotten sick or danced on a table or spilled food or drink on the carpet – nothing like that. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed about my undignified nap.
Comfort. Comfort is necessary. Comfort is release. We seek comfort constantly – whether we are aware of it or not. Our brains are wired to equate comfort to survival, so it is the first order of priority for our subconscious, and often our conscious minds, too.
Meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A cozy sweater on a cool day. Sex. A cup of hot tea. Football in the fall. Our favorite music. Cigarettes. Social media “likes”. Sleep medication. Anxiety medication. Antidepressants. They all serve the same purpose. Above all, they bring us comfort.
As an active alcoholic, I would feel a tingling sensation at the anticipation of my first cold and bitter India pale ale. Just the knowledge that I would drink in a few hours would give me tremendous comfort as I negotiated the challenges of the day. From the first sip through about the middle of the third beer, it was as if comfort was displacing the anxiety and disappointment of the day, like pouring water into a bottle pushing out all the air. They could not coexist, and I was hardwired to know the beer would win the battle for my emotions. I didn’t drink because I wanted to. I drank for survival. For comfort.
Independence is a myth. The question is, what do we choose to depend on?
For 25 years, I grew increasingly dependent on my beloved drink. The physical dependence was frankly not that strong or hard to reverse. The psychological dependence, however, had a seemingly unbreakable hold on my thoughts and patterns. Never was this hold stronger than on the holidays – especially warm and sunny summer holidays like the one that falls annually on the fourth day of July.
I was under the influence of alcohol during the birth of each of our four children. I wasn’t drunk on any of these occasions, but I had enough to drink to prevent me from being fully engaged – fully there for my wife, Sheri. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life. I wasn’t the father my children deserved on the days they were born. How ironic it is that their being there for me is one of the most significant reasons I am permanently sober today.
As our children grew, alcohol continued to have a subtle yet profound impact on their lives. I never forgot to pick any of them up after school or after practice, and I attended all of the games and plays and other events of their lives. This fact – my perfect attendance – hid from my view what is now painfully obvious. Alcohol was taking a toll on my family even if I couldn’t see it.
The day we brought our newborn daughter, Cathryn, home from the hospital, I sat on our back porch and held her in one arm leaving my other hand free to hoist my vodka tonic. I had no idea at the time that these two precious loves would eventually be unable to coexist. I would have to choose, and it would be the hardest, and yet most rewarding, thing I would ever do.
I had alcohol in my system during the births of all four of my children, and the shame from that fact lingers to this day. I don’t think the nurses or doctors knew. I don’t even think my wife, Sheri, realizes I was four for four carrying a buzz into the delivery room. But I know. I will never forget.